Panettone has become the holiday fruitcake. Often given, received with hearty thanks and then forgotten, dust covered in a closet. It’s not really cake, not really bread, what do you do with it? Well, I know what to do with it, and I’m going to tell you the first of several recipes. I’ll also tell you how it came into my life.
I was 21 before I had a taste of Panettone. I wasn’t much impressed to tell the truth. My now ex-husband was Italian from Brooklyn, NY. He had a large family spread among the 5 boroughs as well as upstate NY. There were aunts and uncles, greats and grands, once removed, first, second and third cousins. My family is small, we don’t have plurals or seconds of anything. This family was overwhelming! They cooked together, ate together, celebrated and cried, danced and fought. I had never seen anything like it. I had never seen anyone, anyone, eat like they did.
My first dinner with the family was a small Thanksgiving held in Uncle Joe’s basement. The only place large enough to fit a table that would seat 30 for the small dinners. They had done it so often that they had also installed a kitchen down there as well. They were very skeptical that I was going to be able to eat. Can she eat? She’ll never make it through” Aunt Marie muttered as she slapped a glass of wine in front of me. My husband whispered “Just do the best you can, there’s a lot of food coming to the table”. The problem was that I didn’t understand how many times a lot of food was coming to the table. Me, I’m thinking “big fuss over nothing, I like to eat, I’ll be fine”.
So it began. There were clams oreganata, plates of scampi, platters of spedini, all so good! The bread baskets were making their way to the table to accompany the trays of lasagna, the sheet pans of stuffed shells and manicotti, the huge bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, and platters of sausages. I had some of all it, a big plate. They were smiling at me, and even though my stomach hurt I thought I had done fine. My husband looked at me with a slightly worried expression and asked if I was okay. “Yeah, I’m fine, fine”. I got up to help clear the table and got shooed back into my seat. Big stacks of plates appeared and I started to wonder why bread was being refilled instead of removed. Why were we being given large sharp knives, and exactly how many people were in that kitchen anyway? I felt the first drop of cold sweat run down my back. I saw giant platters being marched from the kitchen towards the table. I looked down at the table hoping that this wasn’t happening. Thwack! Thump! Each platter hit the table with formidable weight. I raised my eyes, my hands got sweaty and if I had been standing my knees would of buckled. Platter after platter of roast beef, whole turkeys, giant ham, chicken cutlets and veal scallopini. We won’t even go into the sides of veggies. I think I passed out for a minute.
Anyway, to get back to the panettone, it appeared on the table along with the other pastry and cookie plates surrounding the giant bowl of fruit. It was tall, had a sort of castle-y shape that was draped in a soft sugar. I was handed a plate and took my first bite. Not what I expected. Not dense and heavy, but flakey and buttery with a background of yeasty, slight alcohol flavor. The rest of the evening is a little fuzzy. I seem to remember Uncle Joe offering slices of fruit from the end of his knife, and nodding and smiling at questions I didn’t really understand which is how I ended up with shopping bags of food to take home for two small (well we were when we got there) people.
There was a panettone in the bottom of one of the bags that was ignored until Sunday morning. I looked at that red box, considering what to do, and thought french toast! I’ll make french toast out of it. I mixed some of the vanilla sugar that comes in the box with eggs and milk, a bit of cinnamon, and a bit of orange zest. I sliced and soaked, browned, and let it rest in a warm oven while the rest was done. I served it with a slather of butter and a sprinkle of powdered sugar and we fell hard. We were in love with the panettone. The ex got up and added some maple syrup to his. No matter how you adorned it, covered in fruit coulis, fresh berries, honey, butter, sugar, jam, nothing…it’s the best french toast ever. Hands down. Best.
Since then, I get excited as winter approaches. I know those red and blue boxes will soon be piled in stores, waiting for me to take them home. I get a happy flutter in my stomach and give a gleeful clap at the first sighting. Good stuff, people, very good stuff. More recipes at another time.
There really isn’t a recipe for this, it’s the same as a basic french toast. Beat eggs, add a splash of milk, a tablespoon or so of the vanilla sugar that comes in the box, a small amount of cinnamon, a bit of orange zest and a small pinch of salt. Mix well, soak the panattone slices until well soaked (I cut mine in half, it’s easier to handle) but be careful not to saturate it, it tends to fall apart. Brown on each side in melted butter and keep warm on a cookie sheet in a 200 degree oven. This extra time will set any egg that might not have set in the frying pan. The slices are thick so the time in the oven is important so that they are completely cooked. That’s it. You can thank me later!